To say that the 2006 season was a successful campaign for the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team would be an understatement. It would be the equivalent of stating that Ladainian Tomlinson is having an average season.
In fact, last season was the greatest single year in the history of the men’s program. The team defied expectations and held the top position in the nation for a majority of the season.
After compiling an impressive 27-5 record, which included a 20-2 record in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and the school’s first ever MPSF Title, the squad advanced to the NCAA Final Four at Penn State University to face off against the Penn State Nittany Lions in the National Semifinals.
The Anteaters had swept the Nittany Lions earlier in the season (30-21, 30-27, 30-25) and were only two wins away from the first national championship in UCI history.
However, the Nittany Lions salvaged their loss from earlier in the year, with a thrilling five-set victory (32-30, 30-23, 31-33, 27-30, 15-13).
After falling into a 0-2 deficit, the Anteaters managed to even the match at two games a piece and looked to pull off a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
With the Nittany Lions serving and leading 14-13 in the fifth and deceive set, the lights suddenly went out in the gym.
Following a 14-minute delay in which the timer for the lights needed to be reset, freshman Max Holt delivered an ace on match point and Penn State advanced to the NCAA Finals, ending the Anteaters’ season.
‘It was a great experience for us,’ Speraw said, describing his team’s run through the NCAA Tournament. ‘Obviously the first thing I think about is how disappointed I was that it finished the way it did. You get that far and you develop some high hopes and I think we were hoping to go to the final four for the first time and win it. We gave everything we had, and that was especially true in that last match. We were down 0-2 and we could have folded and we didn’t. We fought and it just didn’t work out. But experience is a pretty big factor in being successful in that environment. I think we were able to get that experience, which is important for our guys, and I think we can take a lot from what our experiences were last year.’
Even with the heartbreaking loss, the men’s team will have almost the entire roster returning from a season ago. The team was also recently voted as the top team in the CSTV/AVCA Men’s Volleyball Pre-Season Coaches’ Poll.
With such high expectations heading into the season and prominent national recognition, the men’s team will have the so-called ‘targets on their back’ with every opponent looking to pull off the upset against the top team in the country.
Both Speraw and the players left no doubt about the expectations the program has heading into the season.
‘It is our goal to win a National Championship,’ Speraw said. ‘The product that we are going to put out in the court has a chance of being truly special.’
On paper the Anteaters sure look as if they have one of the deepest and most star-studded rosters: National Player of the Year, National Coach of the Year, four All-Americans, Freshman of the Year, six All-MPSF Selections and the list goes on.
Senior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky, who was named Player of the Year a season ago, and senior setter Brian Thornton will be co-captains of the team and will look to lead the Anteaters to their first-ever National Title.
‘[Jayson and Brian] are both All-Americans, so they have so much potential to give our team in their leadership positions,’ Smith said. ‘They both came in the same year that I did, so we have learned so much from each other, and I know those guys are willing to do everything they can to get this where it needs to go.’
While individual accomplishments are always nice, Irvine’s success, like it did last season, will rely heavily on a combined team effort.
‘We were not as physical as most of the teams that we played, but we had a lot of guys that played well together every night,’ Speraw said. ‘Our success is a team effort, and I think the guys understand that. You will see a team with great chemistry working hard.’
Last season the team stole some of the spotlight from the men’s basketball team, winning 15 consecutive games and capturing a large fan base by reaching near-sellout crowds in the few games hosted inside the Bren Center.
‘[The Final Four] was something that they should be proud of,’ Speraw said. ‘They did so much and opened the eyes of so many. I think the guys could look at each other last year and say that they did everything they could to make themselves the best volleyball team they could.’
In reaching the Final Four last season, the bar has been set for the men’s volleyball team and with a roster filled with mostly juniors and seniors, this season will be one of the best chances the Anteaters will have of capturing the National Title.
‘I want our seniors to enjoy this last experience to compete with each other,’ Speraw said. ‘When you have the expectations that we have, the most important thing for them to do is to have fun. I just want to see those guys off right.’